Right next to the gate of the large house at the end of the quiet tree-lined street was the house of the Sharmas. The house overlooked a small shallow lake which was not easily accessible by road and so it was like living in nature and still being in the city. The lake was surrounded by a variety of trees. But it was the huge tree outside Rahul’s bedroom window which was everyone’s favourite.
His father had been a young boy when his great-grandfather had planted the seed and asked him to take care of it. Much to his father’s delight, in a few days a little leaf appeared and with the tender loving care of the entire family the sapling had grown into the massive tree that peeped through Rahul’s window. It was not just any tree; it was a mango tree with its branches spread out wide as if hugging those all around. At the first sign of dawn, birds would throng the tree to continue their conversations from the previous day and at dusk the owl who lived in the trunk of the tree would venture out to hoot at the moon. At the onset of the monsoon, the smell of the wet mud would fill the air and the leaves would glisten with the droplets of water. But it was in summer that the tree was at the pinnacle of beauty. The bright sunlight would shine on the leaves giving them a sparkle but it was when the luscious mangoes hung from the fruit-laden tree that it looked its most spectacular.
The tree laden with its glorious fruit
During early summer when not just the markets but every street would be full of mangoes in various shades of yellow, the tree would be laden with green fruit. Rahul’s father had told him that the mango was a local variety which would ripen very late in summer when the cool monsoon breeze descended upon the city and the dark clouds started making their appearance in the skies. Even when ripe, the fruit would remain mostly green on the outside, with a little red blush. Cutting open a ripe mango however would uncover a dark orange flesh which was completely fibre-less. The family tree mango had a signature flavour that could be best described as rich and spicy.
The mango was no competition to the Alphonso, one of the most prized fruits in the country. The Alphonso’s voluptuous shape and golden-yellow skin with a tinge of red which spreads across the top would reveal a succulent saffron-coloured flesh that was smooth and buttery. Try to imagine it as a cross between a peach, a nectarine, an apricot and a melon with notes of honey and citrus. All that, but only better.
The rich, creamy and non-fibrous, juicy pulp have captured the imagination of celebrity chefs all across the globe and you can now find it on dessert and cocktail menus across the world. It rightly holds its place as the “King of mangoes”.
The late ripening of the home grown fruit allowed the family to enjoy the fruit after they had already had their fill of Alphonso mangoes for the season. The family mangoes were not as aromatic or as flavourful and would never be as famous. They had not even been able to trace their mango’s cultivar. When the evergreen was younger it used to give a bountiful crop, now it had matured and flowered late winter but did not yield much fruit. That made every fruit from the tree precious. Nonetheless, the tree was cherished as it was the family tree, their pride and joy.
When the first fruit appeared on the tree that year everyone was thrilled. In the next few weeks, a few more appeared. Every day Rahul and Manoj the house help would peek out of the window and count the mangoes several times a day. Within a few days of counting, the duo knew the exact location of every mango on the tree. They were keen on protecting each one from the parakeets and squirrels who loved to feast on them. The parakeets were a loud bunch and so were easy to detect. The squirrels however, were another matter. Manoj though had come up with a good plan. He had linked together strings of bells and with the help of Ravi the gardener and Jeevan the security guard they had strung bells all over the tree. Every move of a squirrel on the tree now gave a warning. Everyone in the household participated in the look-out.
The mango protection party was performing exceptionally well. They had not lost a single mango. The cool monsoon breeze blew lightly and the sweet smell of the mangoes wafted in the air. Very soon the mangoes would be ripe enough to be tugged out. Everyone was patiently awaiting that day.
Manoj was the first to spot a missing mango and the next day, Ravi noticed another gone and on the day after Mr Sharma realised a third mango had disappeared. The mangoes were not pecked on like the parakeets did or chewed into with sharp tooth marks of the squirrels. They had completely vanished, neatly pulled out of their stalks by some very clever hands. They had a thief who had been eyeing the mangoes.
This thief though was very crafty, he knew exactly how to get his treat and escape without making a sound.
Rahul still had vacation at college and so he planned to sit by the window the following day and keep watch. The morning passed quite peacefully. After a rather heavy meal and some marathon movie binging, Rahul’s eyes were dropping and before he knew It, he was fast asleep. He woke up with a start at the sound of Ravi’s voice from below shouting that another mango had been stolen. This thief was incredibly talented. Rahul was quite upset the rest of the day, that he had been unable to perform his task responsibly. He resolved to catch the thief the next day.
But that was not to be.
Rahul’s friends came over and they spontaneously decided to go out for lunch and then catch a movie. As he was returning, he saw a dejected faced Jeevan standing beside the gate and knew that they had had another loss that day. The tally of the mangoes on the tree which had been 14 when they began was now reduced to a single digit 9. The thief was really astute. He had patiently waited for the mangoes to almost ripen and was now enjoying the fruit.
Mrs Sharma suggested plucking all the remaining mangoes, the rest felt otherwise. Rahul was adamant on catching the thief and his friends were curious with the idea of a mango thief. They agreed to come over and help. Ravi, Jeevan and Manoj agreed that they needed more eyes and decided they would hatch an infallible plan. So finally it was decided that the mangoes would stay for another day.
There was as meeting held where they went over the cues and came to the conclusion, that late afternoon was the time the thief was mostly likely to strike. They would of course keep watch all day, but it was a few hours after lunch that the thief would make an appearance. They would be extra attentive the next day.
There was no sign of the thief the next day or the day after. Oy the third day, the family had finished lunch and Rahul and Manoj decided to sit by the window and play a game of cards. About half an hour later, Manoj who was staring out of the window with a look of surprise on his face. He alerted Rahul with a light tap on his knee. As they looked, a hairy paw appeared near the window, then a thin long stick came out of nowhere and was delicately placed on the branch right next to a ripe mango. There was not a sound and no real movement on the tree. Soon enough they saw a small monkey dressed in all green walk skilfully on the stick. It was just about to pull out another mango when Rahul made a loud sound with the whistle he had around his neck. Manoj joined in and the startled animal precariously made its way over the walled fencing. Someone hurriedly pulled the long stick back. Jeevan had heard the noise and made his way through the backdoor to the secluded area behind the house. Rahul and Manoj followed as fast as they could. By the time the pair got there, they could see a man hurriedly packing up his few things and trying to make an escape. Jeevan had a head start and despite giving a good chase he was able to get a hold on the man’s shirt collar. The scared monkey was holding on to the man’s neck as if his life depended on it.
After much interrogation, it was found that the young man Raju lived a nomadic life with his monkey. They would travel around putting up entertaining street shows. They had been living in the area around the lake since the past few weeks. He had chanced upon mangoes on the tree and could not resist one. When he found that Mini enjoyed the mango and for a small bit she was ready to pinch them, Raju had concocted a plan. And it had worked, till that day. Raju explained that he was not a thief. He had come to the city believing he could make some money but had realised that city folk had no time and no interest in his kind of road entertainment. He was finding it hard to make end meets and had not eaten even a single mango this season. With a mango tree just a few feet away, he had been drawn to attempt snatching just one. When he had turned lucky in his first try, he had turned greedy. The unforgettable taste of the fruit had made him come up with an ingenious plan to try for more. As the days went by, he had found it easier to steal the mangoes with the assistance of the very talented Mini, that was, till he had been caught.
The boys let Raju go, but not before reprimanding him for his actions and threatening him with a report to the police. The household was eagerly awaiting their return, and the rest of the evening passed with the boys’ action-packed rendition of their exhilarating experience. Early next morning all the remaining mangoes were carefully plucked from the tree. Every one of the adventurers was invited to partake in the scrumptious meal and they had a feast of the treasured lip-smacking mangoes.
The year however belonged to ‘the family tree’ and the tale peppered with suspense and adventure would be passed through generations continuing to entertain and inspire all long after the mangoes were gone.
The story ends there, but I felt it would be incomplete without un-peeling a bit of the history of the stony fruit and sharing a simple but delectable traditional recipe from the kitchens of my ancestors.
Mangoes have a very long history in the Indian subcontinent and are deeply rooted in the culture. Scientific fossil evidence traces back the appearance of the mango in Northeast India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, from where it travelled down to southern India to 25-30 million years ago. Buddha himself is said to have meditated under a mango tree within a silent grove, and Buddhist monks have cultivated the succulent gems over time. The people in the subcontinent have been cultivating the fruit for over 4000 years. But it was with the arrival of the Europeans on Indian soil that the mango seeds travelled the globe with the explorers reaching the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the Americas.
The earliest name given to the mango was Amra-Phal. It is also referred to in early Vedic literature as Rasala and Sahakara, and is written about in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and the Puranas. On reaching South India, the name became Maamkaay due to differences in pronunciation and was further changed to Maanga. The Portuguese who arrived at the coast of Kerala were fascinated by the fruit and introduced it to the world as Mango.
Raghunath Peshwa of the Marathas planted 10 million mango trees as a sign of Maratha supremacy. Folklore has it that it was a fruit from these trees that eventually turned into the famous Alphonso. The advent of the Europeans eventually affected the mango, and it became simply a fruit – the British had no use for it in matters of diplomacy. Though the fruit retained its superiority of taste over the years of, many local varieties were lost and several new ones emerged.
y, the curvaceous shape of mangoes, which has long held the fascination of weavers and designers, has become an iconic Indian motif
The fruit thrives in a tropical climate and is India’s national fruit. India is a land obsessed with the mango and is unsurprisingly the world’s largest producer and consumer of mangoes. India consumes mangoes in abundance in both its raw and ripe forms. The fruit is a symbol of prosperity and happiness, which is why it is used in one way or the other in most rituals of the region. And this is not just the fruit but also its buds and its leaves.
Nowadays, the curvaceous shape of the mango has become an iconic Indian motif.
Because summers to me spell mangoes and because nothing quite tastes like a raw mango, I am sharing the family recipe of a hot and sweet raw mango chutney which is assured to ignite your taste buds;
- Wash dry and peel 3 average- small sized raw mangoes and cut them into thick slices
- Heat a pan with ½ tbsp. of cold-pressed oil (mustard oil is the best if you appreciate the flavour)
- When the oil sizzles add ½ tsp. of mustard seeds and let them pop. Follow this with ½ tsp of cumin seeds, and ¼ tsp. each of fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds (saunf) and onion seeds (kalonji). Let them crackle. You can be even less generous with the fenugreek seeds, unless you like the bitterness it will add. Don’t skip it though; the chutney will not be the same without it.
- Now add the chopped raw mangoes and stir them well to coat with the spices.
- Now add a tsp. each of red chilli powder, turmeric and salt as per taste. You can ad more chilli powder if you like it hot.
- Add 3 tbsp. of dark organic jaggery and give it a good stir. Add 1/4 cup of water and turn on the heat.
- Let the water boil. Cover and cook. Add a little bit more water if the mixture gets too dry.
- Place a lid and allow the liquid to thicken and incorporate all the myriad flavours.
- The chutney is done when the raw mangoes are floating in a thick flowing sauce.
- Allow to cool, transfer to a sterilized airtight glass jar and store in the refrigerator.
- Consume within 4-5 days if it does not get over sooner.
- You can enjoy the flavours with roti or rice or dosa.